THE LIBYAN QUANDARY…In trying to think through what the U.S. should or should not do about the uprising in Libya, it’s worth paying special attention to those who have successful track records when it comes to the deployment American military power. For me, Wesley Clark is at the top of the list. In addition to being the general who commanded the successful NATO efforts in Kosovo, I can’t think of anyone in public life who had a more accurate vision of the democratic revolutions we’re now seeing in the Middle East.

He expressed that vision back in the spring of 2004, in a major piece for the Washington Monthly in which he took on the arguments of the Bush administration and its various neoconservative supporters that creating democracy in Iraq through force of arms would lead to the toppling of other Middle East tyrannies:

Democracy and freedom have been ascendant in most parts of the world for at least the last 15 years, and it’s hard to imagine that they aren’t also destined to take root in the Middle East. But to play a constructive role in bringing this about, we must understand the facts on the ground and the lessons of history clearly. Our efforts should take into account not just the desire for freedom of those in the Middle East, but also their pride in their own culture and roots and their loyalty to Islam. We should work primarily with and through our allies, and be patient as we were during the four decades of the Cold War. More than anything else, we should keep in mind the primary lesson of the fall of the Soviet Union: Democracy can come to a place only when its people rise up and demand it.

Instead of brandishing military force and slogans about democracy, we must recognize what our real strengths and limitations are. In this part of the world, American power and rhetoric tend to produce countervailing reactions. Demands and direct action are appropriate in self-defense, but in a region struggling to regain its pride after centuries of perceived humiliation by the West, we should speak softly whenever possible. If we really want to encourage forms of government to emerge which we believe will better suit our own interests, then we have to set a powerful example and act indirectly and patiently — even while we take the specific actions truly necessary for our self-defense.

That was seven years ago, and as Clark correctly foresaw, freedom has started to come to the Middle East, not through American saber-rattling but because people there rose up and demanded it.

So what, then, should the U.S. do about Libya, where similar democratic protests have so far led to a violent crackdown by Moammar Gaddafi and ultimately to a civil war in which the rebel side seems to be losing? In Sunday’s Washington Post, Clark makes the case for extreme caution:

Whatever resources we dedicate for a no-fly zone would probably be too little, too late. We would once again be committing our military to force regime change in a Muslim land, even though we can’t quite bring ourselves to say it. So let’s recognize that the basic requirements for successful intervention simply don’t exist, at least not yet: We don’t have a clearly stated objective, legal authority, committed international support or adequate on-the-scene military capabilities, and Libya’s politics hardly foreshadow a clear outcome.

I have to admit, that’s not quite what I wanted to hear from Clark. My gut (or maybe it’s my heart) tells me we should be doing more to help the rebels, including funneling them arms. And, since Clark penned that piece the Arab League has asked for a no-fly zone, so the building blocks of international support are being put in place. Still, if Wesley Clark says to slow down, that getting militarily involved in Libya right now is a mistake, we should listen. And, fortunately, as Steve noted yesterday, the Obama administration has been cautious in its statements and actions so far regarding Libya, despite hawks like Bill Kristol calling for the bombing to begin now.

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Paul Glastris is the editor in chief of the Washington Monthly. A former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton, he is writing a book on America’s involvement in the Greek War of Independence.